For most people, Halloween is a holiday that comes around once a year. But for Fort Greene resident Andrew Watts, America’s spookiest holiday is a full-time career. For the past 21 years, Watts has helped to realize Halloween 313, the annual musical spook-tacular that takes over an apartment building at 313 Clinton Ave. in Clinton Hill. It’s a longstanding tradition for families of all ages to gather round 313’s standing-room-only lawn to watch a free and reasonably scary show, on repeat every half hour.
Tonight, the 313 rises again with Watts’ Abracadaver, a magic, mystery and murder-filled walk down the Coney Island Boardwalk. And in honor of the occasion, Brokelyn chatted with the 59-year-old writer and composer about how a one-time volunteer gig scaring kids on Halloween became a lifelong career creating accessible spooks in Clinton Hill.
Watts first met 313’s artistic director, Janna Hyten, in college, and the two connected over neighboring hometowns in Florida. That, in addition to their adjacent backgrounds in illustration and a shared love of art and theater, led to near-instant collaboration.
“Plus,” added Watts, “I’m attracted to crazy.”
Hyten’s craziness interrupted Watts’ own meandering acting career in the mid-90s. He’d moved to New York City in 1985 to pursue theater and formed a theater company with college buds that did well for a number of years.
“We had great success, even close to getting our own show on Comedy Central,” Watts recalled. “When that fell through and when our group’s principal writer left to go to Hollywood, the company started to lose steam, and folded a couple years later. I was dispirited with the industry anyway, and on top of which, I had a family to provide for.”
Somewhere in the thick of the theater company’s success, however, Hyten got in touch.
“In 1994, she called me and said she wanted to create a kick-ass graveyard in her front lawn and wanted to know if I would bring my design skills to the mix,” Watts told us. “We’d work on the graveyard on available weekends [and] I’d bring my young son, who would play with her daughter the same age, and it was just a fun, creative way to spend lovely fall days.”
The pair’s leisurely daytime playdate soon carried them through to doing Halloween antics by night. Watts and Hyten would hand out candy to trick-or-treaters from 313’s spooky graveyard lawn, then host an invite-only costume party at the building for adults later on.
“Kids would wander by and we’d accost them in makeup, interact with them, then give them candy,” Watts recalled. “And of course the party after. One year, Janna turned her parlor into a haunted mansion and she opened it for people to walk through. She had some security, but it was not the fun, Halloween kind of nightmare she had planned. People got a little rowdy and tried to wander around the rest of the house. She never did that again.”
On Halloween nights in the years that followed, Watts and Hyten started doing improv shows among the tombstones on 313’s lawn. And that eventually led to 313’s final incarnation as a fright-specific venue for family-friendly Halloween theater.
“Over the 21 years we’ve been doing this, it evolved into more elaborate improvs, with sets and props and a tiny budget, which evolved into a full-on scripted show,” Watts told us. “There were many professional actors and performers who lived in the neighborhood, so we started creating shows to showcase everyone’s skills.”
313 found a show director when Claudia Howard, director of audiobook publishing company Recorded Books, moved into the building in 2003.
“When Claudia moved in above Janna, we discovered she was a nut for Halloween too, and she began to direct the shows,” Watts said. “She suggested we start pre-recording the shows.”
Howard’s suggestion allowed Watts and Hyten to cast non-actors from the community in their productions who didn’t have professional skills but wanted to join in the fun onstage. It also took the stress out of having to memorize Watts’ zany lines for the one-night gig.
Even to those of us who take our Halloweens seriously, Watts’ commitment to the holiday is impressive. He’s written four of the company’s myriad past productions, titles of which are sure to regale anyone with a punny sense of humor: Malice in Underland, Pirates of the Scaribbean, Clinton Hell High School MusiGhoul. 313 demands a nearly year-round commitment to the holiday.
“The soonest I’ve ever had a serious conversation with Janna about the next Halloween show was in frickin’ November, a few weeks after the previous show closed!” Watts told us. “But generally, it works like this: in January, Janna gets the bug and fires off ideas for Halloween. We all yell at her and manage to shush her until maybe mid-February, when she can’t contain herself any longer. We usually have our first meeting end of February. It’s pretty light, fun, lots of drinking, and we toss out ideas for the show. We have another meeting in March where people submit their concrete show ideas. We vote on the idea we like best, and then, if the past is any judge, we completely change it! Then, it’s handed over to the writer, who is usually me, to turn it into something. I usually submit a script in May, so that Janna and crew can have the whole summer to put the show together.
313 Clinton Ave. is a condo building, so the apartments are owned by individual tenants and not a management company. Still, Hyten makes sure to ask everyone moving in whether they like Halloween.
“I’ve never heard of anyone having a serious problem with the show,” Watts said. “This year, we even got the neighbors at 315 to let us put the stage onto their lawn.”
Watts told us he didn’t turn in the script for this year’s 313 show until August, as he’d had a “total block” in inspiration. Which is understandable, since it can’t be any easier to come up with a Halloween-themed show from scratch than it is to write a regular play.
“I was also behind on the music, which I compose with another FSU alum and friend Barry Hamilton,” Watts said. “I finished it just yesterday! So, although it has made us fall behind on a lot of the building of the show, I think, ironically, this is one of the best scripts I’ve written and going to be one of our best shows and lots of fun for the kids.”
This year’s show is AbraCadaver, a magic (and MURDEROUS) mystery tour down the Coney Island boardwalk that explores the dark side of magic: “That place where the forces of good and evil fight for your soul,” reads the event’s description, “but only one will win!”
Alongside Watts, plenty of other neighborhood residents contribute to making Halloween 313’s shows a reality. Watts calls Halloween priestess Janna Hyten’s energy “infectious,” and told us she “naturally draws people to her” to lend a hand.
“She gets so excited by Halloween and building this show that people love being a part of it and give up tons of their free time to the cause,” Watts said. “It’s remarkable, actually, how much people will volunteer to do with no reward but the fun of the experience and the joy of being part of a community of others with the same goal.”
Watts credits the success of Halloween 313’s volunteer model to a couple of the venue’s house rules: One, check your ego at the door. Two, no matter what you create, it’s perfect. Other than that, everything about this Clinton Hill spook house has sprung up with a kind of “If you build it, they will come” serendipity.
“I can honestly say that we’ve never had to go out and wrangle people,” Watts said. “They just show up on Janna’s doorstep. Like last spring, when a woman comes to one of Janna’s parlor sales, sees her creepy lunatic asylum-looking dining room, and wonders what the hell it is. Janna tells her about Halloween 313, and that this year’s theme is magic. The woman freaks and tells Janna that it’s her favorite time of year and that she’s a performer and her boyfriend is a magician. Next thing we know, Courtney is helping build the show, will be onstage, and Noah is our magic consultant. He may even perform his magic in between shows the night of.”
Halloween 313’s Abracadaver runs for one night only — Halloween! — tonight starting around 5pm and running on every half hour until the last show wraps at 9pm. It’s always free.